Remembering Andy Grove, the Teacher

This post is by Robert A. Burgelman from

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Others are better qualified than I to comment on Andy Grove’s many contributions as a member of the founding team of Intel Corporation, as the company’s CEO and chairman, or as a U.S. citizen and committed philanthropist, but I may be able to highlight a few of his academic contributions to the Stanford Graduate School of Business during the almost 25 years that we worked together there.

It started in August 1988, with an email message from the dean’s office saying that Andy had expressed an interest in getting involved in the school’s academic life. At that time, the belief was that Andy intended to retire as CEO of Intel when he reached the ripe age of 55, only a few years hence. I later read that Gordon Moore had said that was as likely to be adhered to as the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit. (As usual, and luckily

Stanford, Gordon was right.)

Andy, of course, had already shown his interest in academia much earlier by writing a widely used textbook on semiconductor technology and teaching that subject at Berkeley. Plus he had already contributed to the business literature with his best-selling book High Output Management (1983).

We got together and decided to write a case study on Intel’s exit from the dynamic random access memory (DRAM) business — for a long time Intel’s core business. In winter quarter of 1989, Andy taught that new case in one of my courses. He liked it; the classroom suited his penetrating and curious intellect. We decided to write a second case study, and in winter of 1990 he taught two classes. He liked it even more, so we wrote a third case. In winter of 1991 he taught three classes.

This could not continue: Grove was so good in the classroom that I worried I would be out of a job in a few years — long before Andy reached 55.

So we decided to develop a new elective MBA course called “Strategy and Action in the Information Processing Industry.” Throughout the 1990s we continued to write case studies about Intel’s evolving strategic situation, as well as about many other companies facing disruptive changes. The new course provided an extraordinary opportunity for the students to interact in class with Grove, the CEO of perhaps the most important technology company in the world, while he was struggling with the issues raised in the case studies.

Andy not only helped develop case studies and teach them but also made conceptual contributions. His 1996 book, Only the Paranoid Survive, became a best-seller. By 2016, concepts such as “strategic inflection point” and “strategic dissonance” have become part of the lexicon both in academia and in practice. Most likely, no other business school has ever benefited to the same extraordinary extent from an active CEO engaging in the full spectrum of academic activity.

Throughout our teaching of the new course, there were many intellectually stimulating moments, and also some humorous ones — though the latter sometimes seemed so only in retrospect. One such incident involved discussing the dire situation IBM faced in the early 1990s. Andy asked a student, “What should IBM do?” The MBA student responded, with great aplomb, “It should introduce casual day.” The class broke out in laughter, and Andy, usually not slow to react in kind but perhaps a little taken aback, just moved on. This answer was of course not going to earn high marks in the student’s evaluation…except, a few days later, the “What’s News” business and finance column in The Wall Street Journal reported that IBM was introducing casual day. So the student’s answer entered the lore of the course, and his grade remained unaffected.

Andy’s teaching reflected the approach to strategic deliberation he used as Intel’s CEO: relentlessly probing fact and opinion to arrive at clear insights that can be captured in a memorable phrase. For instance, at the height of the internet boom we taught a case on Netscape and invited a well-known guest speaker to attend the class and comment on the discussion. At the end of the discussion, Andy asked the visitor to predict Netscape’s future in three words or less. The visitor did so cogently, although I cannot quite remember his exact words. The visitor in turn asked Andy for his three words. Andy needed only two: “A footnote.” Sure enough, shortly thereafter, Netscape was acquired by AOL and disappeared into the fog of business history.

Over the years, I have met many current and former Intel employees. All of them maintained the highest respect for the company and for Andy’s leadership. In fact, several mentioned — sometimes years later — that the “one-on-one” meetings with him (one-on-one is a personal feedback technique for leadership development used at Intel and described in High Output Management) had enormous positive impact on their careers.

Early in my coteaching with Andy, I had an impromptu one-on-one as we walked back from the classroom to my office one morning. Not entirely happy with how the class had gone, Andy told me, “You have very high expectations of yourself and very high expectations of me, but not high enough expectations of the students.” I may have responded with something like, “That’s why you are running Intel, not me,” and we left it at that. But the fact is that it was the most incisive and crisp, tough but heartfelt, feedback that I had ever gotten, and obviously it has stayed with me. Most important, it provided helpful direction for improvement.

Years later, as I read Swimming Across, Andy’s memoir of his coming of age in Hungary, I realized that his mother had greatly influenced her son’s determination to set and meet very high expectations. But this wasn’t true only of his mother. Occasionally, Eva, Andy’s spouse, came to class and observed Andy’s teaching. After class, Eva usually continued to ask Andy questions about why we discussed this but not that — intimating that it was still possible to do better. Once, Eva’s mother came too. Andy later told me — I think he was actually a bit miffed — that his mother-in-law had observed that he had not paid enough attention to the left side of the class. As much as Andy drove others, he also surrounded himself with people who had high expectations of him and his performance.

Setting high expectations is both stimulating and liberating. Those who can meet high expectations know they can still go further; those who cannot know they went as far as they possibly could.

Until the very end of his life, Andy continued to try to help others with his incisive and crisp, if ever so brief, one-on-one interactions. Here is the last one that helped me. In January 2016, Andy’s High Output Management was reissued, and Ben Horowitz (who wrote the foreword) organized a small party at his house to celebrate Andy. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the gathering. Andy came to see me toward the end of dinner, first talking briefly with some other guests around me. Then, suddenly, he turned to me, bent over, and whispered in my ear, “You have a hearing problem…because you did not answer my question after I asked you three times.” I smiled, surprised, and said, “You still are able to spot my weaknesses.” Andy replied, “I know what you are going to do about it — nothing! And two years from now you will regret that you have wasted two years of your life.” He then flashed his friendly but slightly sardonic smile and turned away. And after that I set up a visit with an audiologist.

I have shed some tears over losing my coteacher of almost a quarter century. But his lighthouse intellect and his extraordinary strong moral fiber and integrity will stay with me. And as long as I have the strength to teach, I will continue to share with my students what I have learned from Andy Grove, out of respect for his indomitable spirit and drive. That is at least one of the lessons of Andy’s life: Each of us should seek such counsel, and seek to provide it to the best of our ability.